PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
By Craig Welch
No president in 35 years has made as sweeping a conservation proposal as President Barack Obama did today by urging Congress to transform the oil-laden coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into what would be the largest wilderness area in the nation’s history.
The president’s move to designate 12.3 million acres of new wilderness would block decades of efforts to drill for oil on a 1.5-million-acre portion of the refuge. That coastal region is thought to contain up to 10.3 billion barrels of petroleum—roughly as much as the nation’s largest oil field, nearby Prudhoe Bay, has produced since 1968.
It would also protect a stunning, diverse ecosystem that includes 36 types of fish, calving grounds and a migration corridor for a troubled caribou herd, and nesting grounds for bird species that travel to the Arctic from all 50 states. It is the only refuge in the United States that is home to grizzly bears, black bears, and denning sites for polar bears, and it provides a wildlife corridor that stretches from the Canadian border across Alaska to the Chukchi Sea.
The refuge—often referred to simply by its acronym, ANWR—has long been a powerful symbol, a litmus test, about how Americans view the nation’s vast expanse of untracked wild country.
That’s been particularly true since 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was burned in effigy in Fairbanks, Alaska, in part for doubling protections along this vast expanse of tundra and birch and spruce forest that stretches from the Brooks Range north to the Beaufort Sea.
Is sacrificing a small slice of this obscure, rarely visited landscape a small price to pay to meet our energy needs? Or is this a one-of-a-kind environment that should be protected at all costs, a place to start to make a transformation to a cleaner energy future?
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